Not sure where to invest your savings? How about a remote cabin in New Zealand? High Country Cabin paid immediate dividends as soon as its owners looked out the window.
Right in the centre of New Zealand’s rugged South Island lies a remote cabin like no other. The brainchild of photographer Kenny Smith and his executive wife Heidi, High Country Cabin is a refuge, a tribute to a slower way of life, and a damn rad place to kick back after a day outdoors.
Left with an empty nest in their early forties, the couple knew they should be ‘mature’ and invest, but all the normal avenues, shares, gold, even property, didn’t excite them.
What did? Something that paid interest by satisfying their interests, and something they could access now. ‘Why not just go directly to the end game?’ says Kenny.
With a life divided between the beach and the mountains, the Gold Coast based couple started looking to the high places.
I caught up with Kenny to find out more.
Tim: People are pining for cabins at the moment, are you able to visit yours?
Kenny: Sadly we’re subject to COVID-19 travel restrictions just like everyone else, but we’ve opened the cabin up to domestic guests in NZ and we’re fully booked for the next 3 months!
We’re using the opportunity to seek out experiences in our immediate area – it’s a great time for everyone to do that. The way that New Zealanders have all got on board with travelling locally and supporting local businesses and tourism has been amazing, and it’s a great thing for everyone to do.
So what was your connection to New Zealand before building the cabin?
I have some family there and we’d visited, but there wasn’t a major connection. A real driving factor was what we could afford.
At the time Twizel (the town High Country Cabin is 15 minutes outside of) wasn’t really on the map for tourism. It was where the guides and locals lived who worked in tourism hotspots like Tekapo, Wanaka and Queenstown.
The real estate agent couldn’t understand why we wanted to buy there, especially out of town! The land was windy and exposed, useful for not much more than grazing sheep. Twizel’s now known as a great base for mountain adventures.
But you’re quick to note that you didn’t build it yourself – what was the process like, sourcing a builder and finding the land?
Basically it started with the idea of ‘we’ll find some land that we could afford and go from there’. In reality the days when you could rock up on a block of land and build your own cabin, at least in our area, are done. Everything is regulated due to the wind, snow and myriads of other planning legislation. Some of it makes perfect sense and some, not so much.
A lot of our decisions were based on what we could afford to do. We narrowed our vision to fit the budget and if we had options within our budget we’d choose the one that best suited our vision.
Budget was one of the biggest factors in our decision making. What’s interesting is how it kept the spirit of the build pure, as typically that’s what cabins are, built with available materials.
I see some amazing projects nowadays built with what seems like unlimited resources and while they’re amazing to me they lack the soul that comes through limitations.
The build process wasn’t easy. At the time there were limited builders and supplies in Twizel, so basically everything had to be trucked in from three hours away.
I ended up camping alone in a Darche swag for a lot of the build, and worked with my builder to do everything I could myself to save money, all the bits that didn’t require a licence to do, I tried to do myself.
‘I’d leave plastic water jugs out in the sun to heat up and have a nude shower in the middle of the day.’
It was an amazing experience and to be honest, something that I’ll really cherish about the process. I even left the swag set up and went to work overseas, shot a project, then returned to my swag out in this open field. It was awesome. Each morning I’d drive into town to use the amenities and get supplies (including a cheese roll and a coffee), and all the locals were like: ‘so…..still camping out there ey?’
At the time I felt really desperate and everything was do or die, the reason I was there was to finish it, and the longer it drew out the more it cost, but looking back I’m so glad I did it that way. I learnt about the place while camping and my interactions with the environment translated into design decisions inside.
It’s a pretty wild environment. One night when I went to sleep it was nice and calm, but in the middle of the night I woke up to a tremendous wind. The roof of the swag was being blown flat across my face.. It was that night I realised I wouldn’t be getting outside furniture for the cabin.
Is this your first cabin? What were your inspirations?
Yes, the only experience I had was renovating my home, so I’d done the whole drafting process, legal work and appointed a builder. Plus, working in the creative industry, things like briefing concepts and taking projects from start to finish are familiar to me. So that side I had some experience in, or at least I knew to expect the unexpected.
In terms of design I’ve always liked the design of Jens Risom cabin on Block Island, so I was inspired by his design. Who better than one of the greats right? The main windows on one gable end suited our site and I liked the function of having a loft over the bedroom and bathroom, they feel like caves, but the living area opens up to high ceilings and a sense of space.
The interior is so cosy. How much was designed and built for the cabin?
The interior came about as a solution to a budget problem. I was looking for something special on a budget that would barely do a kitchen.
I got one of the carpenters to help me build those, along with the built-in sofa. The same friends gifted me a bunch of deer antlers they’d collected on their farm (deer antlers are shed by the deer every year and regrow, they’re the fastest-growing bone in nature). I made the chandelier and some door handles out of them.
High Country Cabin is small, but it’s definitely not a tiny house, did you consider one?
I can’t say I considered an actual tiny house. I was aware of the movement of course, and the minimal concept inspires me. In terms of the actual footprint though, that came about once again due to cost. I initially had a design that was about 85 square meters, and when I got it priced out the cost was way too high.
I went back to the drawing board and ended up with a 62 square metre design that I could afford, but in the process of fine-tuning that design I learned about a regulation difference for footprints of 50 square metres or less, which would help me future proof my plans for the overall site. So I changed it again to get under 50 square metres (we’re 49.7).
The cabin’s available to rent, was this always the plan or something that evolved?
That’s another example of how things develop. The initial concept and budget was based on what Heidi, myself, and each of our kids could afford to maintain, assuming that eventually we’d all chip in to keep it.
I was also confident I could rent it out somehow when we weren’t using it. There were a lot of vacation rentals in town, so I assumed one of the established rental agencies would take it. Funnily enough, once it was all set up and I felt it was ready to take guests, I went to all four of them and none of them would take it!
They all said things like it was too far out of town, that there was nothing to do out there, and that no-one would stay because there wasn’t a TV or central heating. I was dumbfounded and panicked, as that pretty much blew up my plan. I ended up, again by necessity, having to learn how to manage it myself which we do now.
And yeah, that’s worked out to be a blessing in disguise.
How often do you get there yourself?
In normal times, really often actually. I’m now involved in three more cabins on another site which is more remote, but the location is stunning. It’s such a rugged landscape. So between work reasons and spending time enjoying the natural amenities of the area I pretty much live between the two now.
I keep an old Landcruiser at the airport with antifreeze in the diesel and go back and forth. I’m used to being in a constant state of movement because of my work.
Obviously constant travel isn’t the best for the environment, so I offset 100% of my business’ carbon emissions through CNCF, the Carbon Neutral Charitable Fund, and both myself and High Country Cabin are members of 1% for the Planet.
And what do you get up to when you’re there? Is staying at the cabin the main activity or is it a base for adventures?
To be honest staying put at the cabin is something we’re not good at. We always comment as we’re leaving how we never just sit still and enjoy the cabin! There’s so much to do if you’re into the outdoors.
There’s Aoraki / Mount Cook National Park just here with everything from year-round glacial skiing and boarding to mountaineering, long multi-day tramps to mellow hikes. I’m an avid fly fisherman, so I’ll normally spend a few days on foot in the backcountry chasing wild trout.
Heidi likes to mountain bike and hike so we normally have a mission or two planned. I’ve done the full length of the Alps 2 Ocean, which passes right by the cabin too and is a great cycle journey. With 16 hours of daylight in summer you can cram three or four activities into the same day. You go to bed absolutely spent then wake up and do it all again the next day! I usually end a trip with peeling skin and sore legs, that’s for sure.
Do you plan to retire there?
What’s that? [laughs] We definitely see ourselves spending more time tere when Heidi chooses to wind back on her career. For now, healthcare is really important, and she’s in a pivotal role in the industry with the ability to affect change – ultimately that’s where her fulfilment is and I don’t see that changing.
I honestly don’t see a traditional form of retirement suiting us, but the more time off we get will definitely see us spending more time in the mountains, particularly given the increasing ability to work from home.
What’s your favourite thing about your home away from home?
This might not make sense, but besides all the obvious stuff, my favourite thing is the quiet. Just the sounds of nature. There have been times when I’ve gone over alone to stain the exterior for a week or so, and brought a bluetooth speaker to listen to while I worked, and totally forgotten about it and left it in the truck the whole time and not noticed.
Just the sound of nothing is a really amazing thing, being alone with your own thoughts and hearing what you’re really thinking about is interesting. You become so aware of what’s going on around you, and start hearing things like a car approaching from kilometres away.
‘I don’t understand people who hike with headphones on. To each their own, but I don’t get it. Your ears will become another set of eyes if you let them.’
There’s also a type of confidence I find you get if you’ve been alone for a number of days and are ok with hearing your thoughts. If you’ve been alone that whole time and it turns out you become friends with your inner monologue you’re probably going to be alright. Maybe it’s the opposite of what happens when you spend days on social media and watching TV?